Is It a Red Heifer?
Although this week is not Parshas
Parah, since I have a very exciting and germane article for next week that
fits Parshas Shemini, I am sending out this article already this week.
Question #1: Cow or Heifer?
Which is the correct translation
of parah adumah, “red cow” or “red heifer”?
Question # 2: How to?
How does a parah adumah
make you tahor?
Twice a year, once as maftir on
Parshas Parah, and once when we read Parshas
Chukas, we read the entire Torah portion that describes how the parah
adumah is prepared. We also daven fervently three times a day for Moshiach
to come, at which time the taharah process using the parah adumah
will again become part of our lives. This is because this process is the only
way to become tahor from tumas meis, tumah that is
contracted from a corpse, and, in the post-Moshiach era, we will want to
be tahor whenever we can. There is much detail about the laws of parah
adumah, most of which is explained in the twelve chapters of Mishnayos
Parah and the fifteen chapters of the laws of parah adumah in the
Rambam’s Mishnah Torah. This article will discuss many of the basic laws
that will apply when we use the parah adumah to become tahor,
speedily and in our days.
The Torah’s passage about parah
adumah at the beginning of parshas Chukas can be divided into three
sections. The first part discusses the processing of the parah adumah
–how it must be processed into the special ashes necessary to make someone tahor.
The second part, which we will not discuss in this article, contains the basic
rules of tumas meis. The third part explains the process whereby parah
adumah ashes make someone tahor.
History of the parah adumah
According to the Mishnah (Parah
3:4), a total of eight paros adumos were processed from the time of
Moshe Rabbeinu until the destruction of the second Beis Hamikdash.
The first was the one described in the Torah, in which the key player was
Elazar, who was, at the time, the segan, the associate kohein gadol.
The Mishnah (4:1) quotes a dispute among tanna’im whether the
other paros adumus could be processed only by a kohein gadol, or
whether any kohein hedyot was kosher. The Rambam (Hilchos
Parah Adumah 1:11) concludes that a kohein hedyot could process the parah
adumah, although, it appears that each time it was, indeed, the kohein
gadol who did so (Parah 3:8). This is very logical. Since it was the
kohein gadol’s decision who would be honored to process the parah adumah,
and preparing the parah adumah was a
once-in-a-lifetime experience, the kohein gadol would want to perform
the mitzvah himself.
Cow or heifer?
One question we will address is
whether the parah adumah is a cow or a heifer. It is popular to refer to
the parah adumah as a red heifer; however, let us examine whether this
term is accurate. To do so, we need to know the difference between a cow and a
heifer and then to analyze the laws of parah adumah.
My desktop dictionary defines a
heifer as: “a young cow, especially one that has not yet given birth.” The
Wikipedia definition is: “A young female before
she has had a calf of her own and is under three years of age.”
A cow is defined as a mature
female. According to my desktop dictionary, it does not need to be fully mature
to be a cow, since a heifer is called a “young cow.” In other words, “heifer”
should be used to describe the bovine equivalent of a young teenager, and “cow”
includes also a physically mature adult.
From some of the mishnayos in
Mesechta Parah, we may be able to rally proof regarding which term is more
accurate. The Mishnah cites a dispute among tanna’im whether a parah
that is or was ever pregnant may be used as a parah adumah. The
basis of the dispute concerns the following question: One of the laws of parah
adumah is that it may never have performed any type of work. Since a
pregnant cow is carrying her offspring, is this considered doing work? Most
women will agree that being pregnant is far harder than most other physical
work that they have ever performed.
Germane to our current discussion
whether a parah adumah should be defined as a cow or as a heifer, cow
appears to be the better choice, since a heifer precludes it having calved.
There is actually even stronger proof
whether cow or heifer is the better translation of parah adumah.The
opening Mishnah of Mesechta Parah cites a dispute regarding the
age of a parah adumah. The Mishnah cites four opinions: Rabbi
Eliezer rules that a parah adumah must be in its second year, or past
its first birthday. The Chachomim rule that it must be past its second
birthday, otherwise it is too young, and that, preferably, it should be before
its fourth birthday. Rabbi Meir rules that it can be as old as its fifth
birthday. According to both the Chachomim and Rabbi Meir, it could be
older than four or five, but it is advised not to wait this long, since it
could begin to become black, which would invalidate it. Rabbi Yehoshua, the fourth
opinion, rules that it should be in its third year, and not older.
We see that most tanna’im accept
that an animal more than three years old is kosher as a parah adumah.
According to the Wikipedia definition of a heifer, this means that a parah
adumah should no longer be called a heifer – it may be too old. However,
according to Rabbi Eliezer, and possibly Rabbi Yehoshua, it is not incorrect to
call a parah adumah a “red heifer,” although “red cow” would also be
accurate. In conclusion, since we follow the ruling that a parah adumah may
be more than three years old, the most accurate definition is “red cow” and not
Processing the parah adumah
The Mishnah describes how
the kohein who is in charge of processing the parah adumah spent
a week preparing for his task, and how the parah was transported to Har
Hazeisim, the Mount of Olives, where it was processed. Although the parah
adumah had many of the laws of a korban, technically it was not a korban,
and it was prepared outside the Beis Hamikdash grounds.
A huge wood pyre was constructed
on Har Hazeisim, and the parah adumah, after being slaughtered
and having its blood sprinkled in a very specific way by the kohein, was
then burned together with the entire pyre. Many more details of this process
are mentioned in the posuk and the Mishnah (third chapter of Parah).
We were permitted and encouraged
to add as much wood as possible to the pyre on which the parah adumah was
burned. Indeed, the ashes of the parah adumah used to make people tahor
were predominantly ashes from the wood with which it was burned. The flesh
of the parah adumah was completely burned, but its bones were ground up
and mixed into the ashes (Parah 3:11).
There are many details involved in
the processing of the parah adumah. Among the many interesting laws is
that anyone who wanted to be involved in burning the parah adumah was
required to first purify himself and all his clothes, expressly for the
purposes of parah adumah. Also, anyone involved in burning the parah
adumah could not do any other activity while was being burned.
Making someone tahor
After the parah adumah and
its pyre were reduced to ashes, the ash was collected and divided into three
parts: one part was kept on the Beis Hamikdash grounds, one part on Har
Hazeisim, and the third part was distributed for people to use everywhere
around the country (Parah 3:11). The parah adumah ash, which at
this stage in its processing is called eifer chatas, was stored in
closed containers, until needed for purification purposes.
Milui, kidush, and haza’ah
In order to make the next section
easier to absorb, I will divide it into two subtopics. The first is called milui
and kidush, whereby the ashes of the parah adumah are used to convert
spring water (similar to what you would purchase for drinking) into mei
chatas,the special water that makes people tahor. The second
subtopic is called haza’ah, which refers to the sprinkling of the mei
chatas water onto people or vessels to make them tahor.
Milui — drawing spring water
The first step in preparing the mei
chatas is the drawing of the water. Drinkable spring water must be drawn
directly from a spring with a tahor vessel. The vessel must be made
either of material that is not susceptible to tumah (eino mekabel
tumah), such as hollowed-out stone, or, if made from material that is
susceptible to tumah (mekabel tumah), such as wood or metal, it
must have been made tahor specifically to use for parah adumah.
For this reason, someone who immersed a wooden or metal bowl or pot in order to
eat or prepare with it terumah or korbanos or non-holy food (chullin)
may not use the bowl or pot for the preparation of parah adumah. This
rule is one of many takanos chachamim that Chazal instituted, to
safeguard the special taharah status of the parah adumah.
Any person or vessel that is
intended to come in contact with the eifer chatas, the mei chatas,
or with the people and vessels used to process them may not touch anything that
can potentially become tamei, unless the person or vessel was previously
made tahor specifically for parah adumah purposes. Thus, although
the individuals processing, guarding or transporting the parah adumah
are permitted to eat and drink, they are severely restricted in what they are
permitted to eat or drink. They may eat only food that never came in contact
with most liquids (including water, milk, olive oil, wine, grape juice or
honey), and they may drink only water that was drawn from a spring especially
for the purpose of parah adumah.
The person who draws the water
must be completely focused on his job. Performing any other activity not
necessary for the production of the mei chatas while drawing the water
or transporting it will invalidate it, even doing a task so simple as providing
someone with directions or tossing a piece of fruit into a bin.
There is a requirement to be
meticulously careful that no other water mix
into the mei chatas from the time that it is drawn. For example, if it
is left exposed in such a way that dew may enter it, it becomes invalid (Parah
The drawn spring water must be
supervised by a tahor person, until the kidush procedure is
performed. The kidush is done by taking some of the eifer chatas ashes
and sprinkling them onto the water.
One may draw many buckets of water
and pour them into a much larger vat until the vat is full. At that point, one
may take a minimal amount of eifer chatas and sprinkle it onto the vat. The
amount of ashes sprinkled must be enough that one can see it as it touches the
Because of a takanas chachomim,
it is required that the person performing kidush do so while he is
barefoot (Parah 8:2). This is because of concern that his shoes or
sandals might become tamei while he is performing the kidush, and
they will, in turn, make him tamei, which will invalidate the entire
procedure. Those eager to understand the reason for this takanah more
thoroughly are referred to the commentaries to Parah 8:2.
Milui and kidush do not require that they be performed by
a kohein – a Yisroel is fine.
May a woman?
Because of a very complicated droshas
Chazal, there is a dispute among tanna’im whether a woman or a
child may perform milui or kidush. According to Rabbi Yehudah, a
(male) child may perform them, but not a woman, whereas the majority opinion is
that a woman may perform these activities, but not a child (Parah 5:4; Sotah
The Torah teaches that to become tahor
after contracting tumas meis, one must undergo the following procedure:
On the third day after one became tamei, or later, one is sprinkled with
the mei chatas. The sprinkling is repeated four or more days later.
These two sprinklings are referred to transpiring on the “third” and “seventh”
days. In reality, “third” and “seventh” are minimums. The mei chatas
cannot be sprinkled earlier than the third day after the person or utensil
contracted tumah. Whenever that sprinkling actually occurs, at least
four days must past before the second sprinkling can take place. Sometime after
the second sprinkling is performed, the person must immerse himself in a spring
or a mikveh and then await the nightfall after his immersion to become
The same law applies to most
vessels that become tamei from contact with a corpse. They require
sprinkling on the third or later day after contracting tumah, a second
sprinkling four or more days later, immersion in a spring or mikveh, and
then waiting until nightfall. After these four steps have been taken, the
vessel becomes completely tahor.
This sprinkling is done with a
special plant called an eizov, which is usually translated as “hyssop.”
However, the word “hyssop” is simply the word eizov transliterated into
Greek, which was then transliterated into Latin and then English, and someone
decided that it might refer to an herb that they chose at random. According to
different approaches to explaining a passage of Gemara (Shabbos
109b), eizov might mean oregano, sage or marjoram, all of which are
fragrant shrubs. From the Mishnah (Parah 11:7), it is evident
that the eizov was considered edible, presumably either as a salad green
or in some form of dip. It is absolutely essential that one use the correct
variety meant by the Torah as eizov (see Parah 11:7). We will not
know for certain which species is intended until Eliyohu returns to identify it
Although the people that are
becoming tahor do not have to intend that they are becoming tahor,
the person performing the haza’ah must have in mind that the procedure
he is performing is for the purpose of making them tahor. If he did not
have this in mind, they remain tamei.
The water that is being sprinkled
must land on the tamei person or utensil directly – if it ricocheted off
another item and then landed onto the tamei person or utensil, they
Minimum contact – substantive
The people or implements becoming tahor
need be touched by only one drop of the mei chatas waters. Indeed, there
is no halachic advantage to receiving a bigger sprinkling or more than
one sprinkling on a day. As I mentioned above, to become tahor the
person or implement must have mei chatas sprinkled on them twice – once
on the third day (or later) from which they became tamei meis, and a
second time, at least four days later (this is referred to as the “seventh day”
– i. e., at least four days after the first sprinkling). The people or
implements then require immersion in a mikveh or spring and become
completely tahor on the next nightfall. Until that time, the people may
not enter the Beis Hamikdash grounds, nor may they consume terumah
or kodoshim. However, they are permitted to touch regular food without
contaminating it, and they may also handle maaser sheini.
May a woman II
The tanna’im dispute
whether a woman or a child can perform the haza’ah. Because of the
hermeneutic rules, this dispute is the exact opposite of what I mentioned
above, regarding the milui and kidush. According to Rabbi
Yehudah, a woman may perform the haza’ah, but not a child, whereas
according to the majority opinion, which is the way we rule, a (male) child can
perform this ritual, but not a woman (Parah 12:10; Yoma 43a).
Since we mentioned above that the
person performing the haza’ah must know that he is making someone tahor,
a very young child cannot perform haza’ah, but only a child old enough
to understand that his act is making someone tahor (Parah 12:10,
Because of space considerations,
several important aspects of the parah adumah have been omitted in this
article. Included in the topics that have been omitted is the full explanation
of the famous statement that parah adumah is metaheir es hatemei’im
umetamei es hatehorim: although it makes tamei things tahor,
it also sometimes makes tahor things tamei. We also did not
discuss what defines the parah adumah as being completely red, nor did
we discuss the dispute with the tzedukim about the proper processing of
the parah adumah, which had major halachic ramifications. We will
have to return to the topic to discuss these laws in future articles.
One of Rav Moshe Feinstein’s talmidim
related to me the following story that he himself observed. A completely
red, female calf had been born. Since this is indeed a rare occurrence, much
conversation developed concerning whether this was positive indication that
Moshiach would be arriving soon and this calf would provide the parah
necessary to make people and vessels tahor.
Someone approached Rav Moshe to
see his reaction to hearing this welcome news, and was surprised that Rav Moshe
did not react at all. When asked further whether he felt that this was any
indication of Moshiach’s imminent arrival, Rav Moshe responded: “I daven
every day for Moshiach to come NOW. The parah adumah is not
kosher until it is past its second birthday. Do you mean to tell me that I must
wait two more years for Moshiach?”